Complaints over racial harassment inside Worcester County drug unit fueled push to fire two black officers, including chief Kelvin Sewell
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This was a scene last month in Pocomoke City, Maryland: the annual Christmas celebration held in the town square across from City Hall, replete with dancing, music, and smores. It seemed on the surface like the people and their leaders had moved on from the controversy which embroiled the small town on the Eastern Shore last summer, after the city’s first black police chief Kelvin Sewell was fired amid allegations of racism. ESTHER TROAST: I’ve lived here 45 years, and I just, it upset me, and it devastated me to see things go the way they went. And I finally feel whole again, and I think the city’s starting to feel whole again, also. GRAHAM: We sat down with city manager Ernie Crofoot just before the festivities. He, too, expressed confidence that Pocomoke was moving forward from the conflict over Sewell’s dismissal, which Sewell and his lawyers alleged was because he refused to fire an officer who had filed a discrimination complaint. ERNIE CROFOOT: This is a nice town. We get past this other stuff, and–yeah, at some point the facts will come out, and things will settle down. GRAHAM: But noticeably absent from the scenes of Christmas cheer was part of the town that perhaps still felt estranged from a city that appears to embody all the divisions and contradictions about race in America: its African-American citizens. As our cameras rolled, few appeared to take part in the festivities, even though residents told us afterwards that our impression of the black community’s conspicuous absence was wrong. JAMES EVANS: When you came out to events like tonight, I mean, you know, there was–there was all shapes, sizes, and colors involved. STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: True. But it did seem like mostly white people were here. EVANS: No, not in the beginning. JANIS: I mean, [inaud.] to have–. EVANS: Not in the, not in the beginning. You know, as the night went on I believe the statement you made is correct. But again, if you were here last year that wouldn’t have been the same statement. You know, once, one a hot button topic is brought up, you know, then that divide becomes bigger. There’s a bigger chasm there. And when that’s there, you know, it separates. GRAHAM: And that is, in part, what the conflict over Sewell’s firing has been about: a perception among African-Americans it was racially motivated, and in the white community that it was not. CROFOOT: And you know, the time that I’ve spent in this town, the racism aspect of this, it’s, it’s not there. It’s something that’s being, being conjured up. And unfortunately in today’s society it’s a hot topic button, and it came out at the wrong time. And, and race shouldn’t be. GRAHAM: But now a federal discrimination lawsuit filed last week by Sewell, along with two Pocomoke City officers, Lynell Green and Frank Savage, lays out a case that race not only fueled the conflict but defines the city itself. That’s because the suit alleges a long-term and concerted effort involving multiple government agencies, including the Worcester County sheriff’s office and state police working in concert to retaliate against Sewell after one of his officers, Frank Savage, filed an EEOC discrimination complaint. Retaliation that culminated on both men’s termination. A complaint which starts by alleging a culture of racial intolerance within the special Worcester County drug unit which, not incidentally, regularly raided black neighborhoods in Pocomoke. According to the suit, when Savage joined as the first black officer to serve in the unit, a pattern of racial harassment began. Soon officers in his unit were regularly using the word ‘nigger’, even after he asked them to stop. Officers would regularly refer to suspects as niggers in his presence, and they would watch videos at work in which the word was used, and laugh. Along with racial epithets came other forms of intimidation, including a ride to what his fellow officer described as Ku Klux Klan land, where officers told Savage he might find a noose. And when Savage complained to his superiors he was ignored, and even mocked, according to his suit. And later, he found a bloody deer tail placed upon his vehicle, put there by a member of his unit. The state police investigated, and found Savage to be truthful. But they did not punish anyone. And things only got worse for Savage after he turned to the government for relief when he filed a federal EEOC complaint alleging discrimination. Shortly thereafter the lawsuit alleges fellow officers began to spread rumors about him, that he had used his undercover ID to obtain fraudulent loans, that he was on drugs, which prompted two drug tests, and later that he had sold his off-duty weapons. And when federal law explicitly bans retaliation against people who filed EEOC complaints, the city of Pocomoke fired Sewell, and then Savage. In December we asked city manager Crofoot about the curious timing of both dismissals, but he insisted both Savage and Sewell’s firing had nothing to do with race, and intimated that other personal issues were to blame, some potentially nefarious. CROFOOT: I’d love to tell you why. I would love to tell you why. Because I don’t, I’m sure, I’ve said it publicly, it wasn’t for those things that folks think it was for. But I can’t tell you why. But I, I leave it to your conjectures, what are the possible things that someone who’s well-liked can be terminated for. GRAHAM: During our visit to Pocomoke City, African-American leaders say they have confidence in Sewell. Bishop Isaac Jenkins, pastor of the New Macedonia Baptist Church where Chief Sewell parked his car to walk the streets, says his connection to the community transformed policing in the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhood known as the backburn. ISAAC JENKINS: The community, it would be, it would be back on his way to, to here if the chief could be reinstated. I’ve heard folk who never talk about police officers, oh, he’s good to talk to. You can talk to him. You feel comfortable. He [then continued] this and that–and he walks up to you, if he feels that you’re standing out there and you shouldn’t [inaud.], he’d tell you, why don’t you go somewhere and get shelter? He didn’t, he wasn’t angry like they feel some police officers would be, saying, he was always saying something to show his kindness. Yes, it would be a big help to this community toward healing if he could get back. GRAHAM: And it’s not just the city’s black community that’s continued to see the impact of Sewell’s abrupt departure. Michelle Lucas has decided to move away due to the ongoing controversy over the former chief and the recent crime increase. MICHELLE LUCAS: I loved Pocomoke. I loved the fact that I could walk down the street, and wave, and talk to people. I loved the fact that if someone’s seeing you walking in the rain, whether you know them or not, they’d stop and say, hey, do you need a ride? And it’s not like that anymore. Pocomoke’s not like that anymore. Pocomoke might as well be a city. GRAHAM: A sad realization for her and others that the town remains profoundly divided. Divisions that the lawsuit alleges operate deep beneath the placid facade of a community that appears to be searching for common ground. EVANS: You know, when something like this happens, then there–then there’s a divide that takes place. And that divide wasn’t there until this came out. GRAHAM: Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.
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